Scholarship and Skepticism

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There is a problem in civil debate and discussion that is crippling the greatest benefits of discussion itself: discernment, knowledge, and discovering the truth cooperatively. People do not know what they are talking about, and more critically they truly believe that they do. The reasons why are clear, and the way to fix it is even more obvious. 

Information is acquired in snippets and headlines in the world of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat news. This is a result of the current technological atmosphere and instant communications. People want to learn about the world around them as long as it takes no longer than a cursory glance, leaving people regurgitating claims (which usually appear in a headline or summary of some writing) that they have not an inkling of an idea about the evidence or lack thereof that supports it. 

So, let’s say person A reads that global warming is a myth in the headline of a news source. What happens is that person A will just accept that as truth because of the person who published it. Then when person A runs into person B and they talk about the climate, person A will say climate change is false because someone in the media said it was false. The claim by the source itself is not worth anything in this discussion, because while there may or may not be evidence used in the news story published, person A is ignorant to this. Similarly, person B might counter person A by saying that climate change is happening because science says so, or because studies have shown it to be true. Again, there may be scientific studies that support person B’s claim, but all person B uses is the claim. Both person A and B use the same poor argument, appealing to a vague authority. I would argue that this is a direct result of people reading the headlines and snippets, scraping the cheese off the 7-layer dip of an argument, and not gathering evidence and reasoning that supports the claims, the beans and the salsa. 

Another source of deception that people’s claims and discussion fall victim to is emotional manipulation. A common example of this is in short videos or ads portraying some vague images and playing emotional music over it. National Geographic released an ad for a documentary where they showed images of natural disasters and had ridiculously dramatic music playing while text floated across the screen talking about the horrific effects of climate change. This is a perfect trap for those who think with their heart and emotions, the pathos will be enough for them to justify the conclusion of the ad, and so the hunt for knowledge ceases there. Of course, the documentary will likely provide reliable studies, but the ad makes no claims about how humans are the cause or studies that support this; the emotional human is not concerned with that, they have already seen what they wanted to see. 

(To be clear, I am not taking any stance on climate change, I am simply using it as an extended example.)

The problem faced now, is that in both of these situations people will consider themselves knowledgeable or credible on these topics in discussion after reading that headline or viewing that 30 second ad. Human pride and arrogance bar individuals from backing down, or admitting wrongness. In a discussion people are not willing to say that they don’t know for sure what they believe or that they have not read enough or gathered enough evidence to make a defensible conclusion. So, arguments become circular and heated, both parties dig their heels deeper into their own side, there is no appeal to wiser counsel of a third party, and nobody learns anything because no one knew anything in the first place.

The answer lies in a question. Simple, yet effective: “How do you know?” How do you know that what you are saying is true? What is the way in which you came about your narrative? This keeps people in check, this challenges people to research and be knowledgeable. It should not be used as a sword to win arguments, but much more gracefully, as a gentle check on the epistemic failures that plague the culture. If this question is used more frequently, then people would be forced to know more about what they wish to discuss academically or otherwise. And then the fruits of true Platonic and Socratic discussion can be found, civility, progress, wisdom, and knowledge. Again, that is the goal, rather than “own” your friend in an argument, genuinely try to discover truth and understanding through the exchange of ideas.